Las Vegas has become so identified with The King's career that it's hard not to think Las Vegas without thinking of Elvis. From "Viva Las Vegas," to more recent films like the Flying Elvises in "Honeymoon in Vegas," Elvis lore is now a permanent part of Vegas history. He married Priscilla at The Aladdin, his run at the International Hotel (now the Las Vegas Hilton) was the most successful act in Vegas history, pre-Siegfried and Roy, and a statue of the King is still in the Hilton lobby.
Yet the conventional wisdom is that Elvis' Vegas period were years of decline, garish excess and self-parody. This is really unfair when you look at the totality of The King's run in Vegas, particularly in the beginning. The fact is that the concerts at the International were some of the commercial and critical highlights of his career, and gave the chance for many of his fans to see him perform in person.
What most people don't know that the International run was Elvis' second attempt at making it in Vegas. At the start of his career, Colonel Parker booked Elvis for a 2-week run at the Venus Room of the New Frontier Hotel. On April 23, 1956, he was put on the bill with the Freddie Martin Orchestra and got little response from the mostly middle-aged, convention audience. While he didn't quite bomb, Elvis wasn't doing well and the Colonel asked Liberace, performing across the street at the Riviera, to stop by for moral support. The two posed for publicity pictures, and Elvis never forgot the favor. From then on, whenever Liberace had an opening, roses arrived backstage courtesy of The King.
In the late 60s, after a run of increasingly mediocre movies, Elvis got the itch to perform live again, and the Colonel signed a deal with the International Hotel , following Barbra Streisand opening the new International showroom. Prior to the opening, he expressed concern to his guys...would people still accept him? He spent months auditioning and rehearsing his band. On July 31, 1969, despite pre-show panic, he opened to an invited audience of show biz celebs including Cary Grant. Donning a 2-piece karate-inspired outfit, he led off the show with "Blue Suede Shows" and then tore into his hits, including "All Shook Up" and "Hound Dog." According to producer Felton Jarvis, "He was all over that stage. I mean, he almost hurt himself - he was doing flips and cartwheels and all that kinds of stuff; on "Suspicious Minds" he'd be down on one knee and do a flip across the stage and just roll. "
Critics raved about his performance. The picture of Elvis at the press conference following the concert show Elvis at perhaps the most confident and happy moment in his career. From that point on, Elvis became the most successful entertainer in Vegas history.
In February, 1970, Elvis began his next run at the International. Now more relaxed, Elvis chose to focus on more contemporary material. Besides his own recent hits of "In the Ghetto," "Suspicious Minds" and "Kentucky Rain," he also did covers of "Polk Salad Annie," and "Walk a Mile in My Shoes." He also injected more self-deprecating monologues and interplay with the audience in the show.
Elvis had always idolized Dean Martin and was very influenced by his style of singing ballads. One night, spotting Dean in the audience, he began an improvised version of "Everybody Loves Somebody."
With the show format pretty much set, Elvis again opened in August of 1970, this time being filmed for an MGM documentary (that came to be called Elvis - That's the Way it Is). The Colonel declared it an Elvis Presley Summer Festival, and decked out the employees in straw hats. On the final night of the engagement, a 3:30 am show was added. When Elvis gave the vocal cue for "Hound Dog," the band missed their cue. Elvis turned around angry until he saw a little basset hound come onstage. He fell down laughing.
Joe Guercio, Music Director of the International's orchestra (who later came up with the idea of opening with Also Sprach Zarathustra, the theme from 2001) explains Elvis' appeal:
Opening night was when I was impressed with Elvis Presley. I mean, I've been onstage with a lot of stars - I hate to let the air out of their balloons, but they have no idea what a star is. Jesus Christ! It was unreal. It was just a group of song, very little production - it wasn't as organized as a lot of Vegas shows. But, buy, if you want to talk about going out and grabbing people - Elvis Presley was a happening, and what he had going will never be again. There was a vibe you can pick up in the audience - it was unbelievable. I'm not going to say to you musically it was the best in the whole world. It was charisma. He just loved to put other people around his little finger and do it, and he did. (from the book Careless Love)
On February 18, 1973, one of Elvis' fears came true. He had been through an assassination threat in 1970. This night 4 men rushed the stage, and Elvis' guys rushed to protect him. Elvis took up his karate moves and knocked one of them into the audience, but he couldn't be calmed down. "I'm sorry ladies and gentlemen. I'm sorry I didn't break his goddamn neck is what I'm sorry about." The guys turned out to be fans who just got a little too rowdy, but later that night Elvis couldn't stop talking about it. He speculated they were sent by the karate instructor who was now going out with Priscilla.
Elvis continued many engagements at The International, now The Hilton, throughout the 70s. However, an increasing dependence on prescription medications eventually started to affect him and the show. Perhaps he felt he needed to come down from the intensity of the shows in order to get to sleep and get up; maybe it was his divorce from Priscilla, or maybe he just became bored. But as the decade wore on, the number of cancellations and doctor visits increased. His fans still loved him, and there still moments of greatness in the shows, but by 1974 he appeared more tired onstage with more strange stream-of-consciousness monologues. Elvis began adding more karate moves to the act, and on one night put on a 15-minute karate exhibition. One time he put on a karate demonstration during Tom Jones' show at Caesar's Palace.
At this time one of Elvis' strangest albums came out. Having Fun with Elvis On Stage was nothing more than these monologues and jokes, with no music at all. The Colonel released this album as a spoken-word recording to avoid royalties to RCA.
By December, 1976, it was clear something was wrong. December 12th was Elvis' last night performing in Vegas, he seemed to have trouble concentrating. A Memphis music critic wondered "how much longer it can be before the end comes, perhaps suddenly, and why the King of Rock 'n Roll would subject himself to possible ridicule by going onstage so ill-prepared." Nine months later he would be gone.
Perhaps it was just too hard to live up to being Elvis Presley night after night. Some authors on Elvis (below) can better explain what happened to Elvis. But for most of the 70s, Elvis Presley displayed his immense talent in Las Vegas, a star that still shines just as brightly as when he was with us, and shows no signs of fading. He's Classic Vegas!